Our car pulled into the parking lot of Pleasure House Point in Virginia Beach an hour before dusk. Tomorrow, Baxter, Gabriel, and I will be participating in the Kiptopeke Challenge: a big day fundraising event for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory.
We enjoyed the beautiful saltmarsh and tall grass fields dotted with windswept pines, and walked the sandy trails, birding it slowly and thoroughly. We heard a Palm Warbler calling in the brush. Being Piedmont and Valley birders, it always takes a while to get into the mindset of Coastal Plain birding. We scanned a tern flat and found many Royals and several Caspians. A flock of shorebirds flew overhead and resulted in a three-way debate of the species: we finally agreed that they were Lesser Yellowlegs. We had another flyover, this time Cattle Egrets.
As we continued along the trail we heard several Clapper Rails. A search in the grasses for Seaside Sparrows proved unsuccessful. Suddenly, we flushed a medium-sized peep from the mudflat and it gave an insect-like flight call as it flew into the sun. Our initial impression of White-rumped Sandpiper was proven correct after a quick check on Merlin Bird ID.
We finished walking the trail, seeing Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and a Tricolored Heron.
After arriving at the Quality Inn, we unpacked our things, satisfied with a good hour of birding. Baxter and I got settled into the room and ate dinner with Gabriel, discussing the final plans of tomorrow’s big day. After dinner, Gabriel returned to his room where his dad Daniel was already asleep, preparing to drive us for 18 hours tomorrow.
I set my alarm for 3:20 am and turned off the lamp in our room at 9:30 pm.
Three hours later, I still hadn’t fallen asleep. The adrenaline before a day of birding often results in trouble falling asleep, but never this bad.
Awaken by my blaring alarm with three hours of sleep under my belt, I showered and ate breakfast: an apple, a Cliff Bar, and a shot of Mi0 Energy in my water.
At 3:57 we departed from the hotel with haste, Arriving at Pleasure House Point five minutes later. Before the car had stopped we were exiting with binoculars in hand. The stars were in small numbers due to light pollution, and every couple seconds a seep was heard overhead: the sounds of migrating warblers. Once we snatched our daybirds Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Clapper Rail, and Mallard, we sprinted to the car and set off for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the 18-mile bridge-tunnel that spans from Virginia Beach to the very tip of the Eastern Shore.
We stopped on first island off of the bridge, a 5-acre rarity magnet composed of asphalt and concrete lined with rocks along the edge. Here, we picked up a single Ruddy Turnstone, some Sanderlings, Rock Pigeon, and a couple of the common gull species.
Ten minutes ahead of schedule, we continued across the remainder of the bridge and over Fisherman’s Island, finally hitting the very tip of the Eastern Shore.
Within a few minutes we were sitting at the picnic table at the Kiptopeke SP Hawkwatch Platform. The stars were more numerous and shining brighter than I had ever seen; we weren’t in Virginia Beach anymore. As we watched the shooting stars, a Great Horned Owl called from the woods, our team mascot. After hearing the the Veery’s distinctive veer flight call, a Green Heron squawking, and dozens of warblers passing overhead, we departed for Magotha Road.
Due to the close proximity of hotspots in southern Northampton county, we arrived at Magotha five minutes later. There we heard two more Great Horns giving their short yelping call. A single Marsh Wren was heard in the saltmarsh.
After another five minutes, we drove down Ramp Road in Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR and parked at the dock. Here we would wait for the break of dawn. We had a good sized flight of Swainson’s Thrushes as the sky turned in to a fiery red. The scenery was truly breathtaking.
We walked from the lot onto the dock, seeing several bats and a Common Nighthawk, a good bird for the Kiptopeke Challenge. As the sun rose so did the waders, and we saw large flocks of Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and White Ibis. Primarily silhouettes, I got better at identifying waders in flight. Eight Black-crowned Night-Herons were also perched on a nearby cedar. Gabriel spotted a Peregrine and a Merlin bolting over the saltmarsh, as well as a Northern Harrier soaring above. Several Bobolinks were seen and heard flying overhead. Baxter and I also saw a probable Seaside Sparrow, but we were never able to confirm. Another noteworthy bird was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak calling in the brush. We left hastily, remembering we needed to be at Sunset Beach (a small resort on the bay side), for the morning flight.
During fall migration, songbirds migrating down the Atlantic Coast will funnel into the Delmarva Peninsula, migrating down until they hit the Chesapeake Bay. These birds then turn around and head north, often stopping in Sunset Beach for the morning.
We entered the resort and parked. The three of us walked through the trailer park, seeing Killdeer, another daybird. We made our way to a clearing near the beach, where many birders were present to watch this spectacle, most of which were participating in the challenge, such as Team Turnstone, which included Ezra and Theo Staengl, as well as Baxter’s younger brother Tucker Beamer. We gathered at a clearing which was lined with Live Oak and Shortleaf Pines, and were immediately breathtaken by the sheer number of warblers pouring from the sky and moving northward through the trees. Ned Brinkley later described this as a “trickle” compared to a large flight from several days before.
The three of us first attempted to identify the birds as they accumulated in the trees, but we quickly learned that that was impossible, and we resorted to identifying the warblers in flight. The idea of identifying each bird in flight within a mere second seemed overwhelming, and it would’ve been impossible without the other teams there for assistance. To add to the stress, the Kiptopeke Challenge rules stated that at least two members of a team needed to see a bird for it to be counted, and 95% of the birds needed to be seen by all members.
As dozens of warblers flew through the clearing at a time, I eventually mastered the identification of parulas, redstarts, and magnolias, as they were by far the most common of species. The air was filled with the sounds of dozens of seep flight calls. I found the challenge and quick speed of identification thrilling, and identified several distinctive species, such as Northern Waterthrush, and Blackburnian, Black and White, Black-throated Blue, Cape May, and Prairie Warblers. Mixed in with warblers were great numbers of Northern Flickers, as well as some Eastern Wood-Pewees, Blue Grosbeaks, a Baltimore Oriole, and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers.
As a big push of warblers came through, we all saw a passerine flying away, as it gave a light wink call, which reminded local birding expert Ned Brinkley of a Lark Bunting, a bird native to Great Plains, and with a check online, the call matched perfectly. No one got a good visual on the bird, so it was left simply as a probable Lark Bunting: the bird that got away.
This amazing experience lasted for another thirty minutes, and we saw a total of 17 warbler species, including my long awaited yearbird Tennessee Warbler. Unfortunately, Gabriel was the only one on the team to see a Bay-breasted Warbler, so we weren’t able to include that on the daylist.
Once the warblers started to dissipate, we chose to return to Kiptopeke SP Hawkwatch Platform, where we got our daybirds American Kestrel, Red-eyed Vireo, and Tufted Titmouse, a fairly uncommon bird on the shore.
We returned to Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR and found it to be quite dead, so we drove back to Magotha Road, where we dipped on Eurasian Collared Dove, but saw 7 kestrels, an Eastern Phoebe, a Belted Kingfisher, a Least Sandpiper, a flock of 25 Forster’s Terns, and several House Finches, another uncommon bird on the Eastern Shore.
Having finished birding southern Northampton, we drove north on 13, stopping at the Cape Charles Beachfront, where we snagged Sandwich and Common Tern, as well as a large flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds.
Jumping back onto the Atlantic side, we stopped at Oyster and saw three Spotted Sandpipers, a flock of Tree Swallows, and a group of Little Blue Herons flying above. We then drove two minutes to Cheriton Landfill, where we saw the first state record Lucy’s Warbler in January. There we found a Pied-billed Grebe and a Ring-necked Duck on the pond, as well as a Yellow Warbler, and Savannah, Grasshopper, and Field Sparrows in the brushy field down the dirt road. A Cooper’s Hawk flying low relieved the stress that we would miss one for the day. We also got two more woodpeckers, Red-headed and Red-bellied, as well as amazing views of some Bobolinks.
Digibinned Bobolink (I left my camera in the car)
Baxter and Gabriel also saw a Horned Lark, which I never got my eyes on. A very productive stop, with 11 new species! We still hadn’t seen a Song Sparrow, which was quite concerning.
We birded Willis Wharf, a great spot for shorebirds at high tide, when no mudflats were visible. I was at the car when Baxter and Gabriel called me, so I ran up and looked in the scope, seeing a gorgeous Whimbrel standing in a tiny sliver of exposed mud. The bird flew off shortly to find a better mudflat to stand on.
We dropped by Eyre Hall, a weird gravel road lined with Crape Myrtles and Eastern Red Cedars, and expansive fields of soybeans on either side. Lots of chippers were on the road, as well as a Black-throated Green Warbler, another warbler missed at Sunset Beach. As we turned onto 13, a Pileated Woodpecker flew overhead.
The Great Horns at Eyre Hall
Our long drive to Saxis WMA began, and after entering Accomack County, we stopped on the side of the road where we found a good number of hawks and gulls soaring on the thermals. We then hawkwatched for almost half an hour, seeing many raptors, including a Peregrine, a Broad-winged Hawk (daybird!), and some Northern Harriers.
Baxter and I drank root beer and Coke in the car until we arrived at Saxis. We drove slowly down the road staring at the endless saltmarsh, and I spotted a small brown ammodramus flying alongside the car, and Gabriel managed to get his binoculars on it, noting an orange face—a Saltmarsh Sparrow, our best bird so far! we got out and birded the road, seeing another probable Seaside Sparrow. A Red-tailed Hawk soaring in the distance showed off it’s brilliant brick-red tail. We also heard a Hairy Woodpecker calling and a White-eyed Vireo singing in the woods, as well as some Forster’s Terns on the dock.
We then crossed the Delmarva Peninsula, and hit the Atlantic side once again, seeing an Eastern Meadowlark along the way. We took the road over Queen Sound, and saw some American Oystercatchers in the marsh and Boat-tailed Grackles on the billboards. On the drive to Tom’s Cove, we stopped to see the Chincoteague Ponies.
We arrived at the beach and started birding the cove side, where we saw Piping Plovers: an adorable little bird I had only seen once before.
We also saw a good number of Red Knots and Caspian Terns, as well as two Willets. We continued along the beach and found a nice flock of shorebirds with several Semipalmated Sandpipers and a Western Sandpiper, a Virginia lifer for me. The longer bill stuck out amongst the other peeps.
We also saw some Semipalmated Plovers and Red Knots.
We left the refuge and visited the Island Nature Trail, where we had a several Common Grackles fly over, and many Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaking from the pines. One was particularly obliging and gave some amazing views.
Aside from those two species, the trail was unproductive, so we left to look for a Song Sparrow and American Goldfinch at the Refuge Visitor Center. The mosquitoes were so bad that we couldn’t bear it any longer and decided to give up. The Chincoteague Ponies were much closer and had some Cattle Egrets hitching a ride. Funny to think that both are non-native species.
Cattle Egrets and Chincoteague Ponies
Daniel dropped us off at the Black Duck Trail, which was also quite mosquito-infested. As we walked we heard rustling and watched a Delmarva Fox Squirrel craw up a pine and watch us from a distance. Always a thrill to see.
Delmarva Fox Squirrel
The rest of the trail was completely dead, and since our legs were covered with wounds, we decided to check out mosquitoless Tom’s Cove one last time.
Dawn approached, and we scanned the backlit flats, seeing many Marbled Godwits, number 131. The rest of the birds were the same as earlier, but we scanned a flock of gulls looking for Lesser Black-backed Gull, to no avail. Piping Plovers posed for more photos.
Baxter and I ended the day by ordering the traditional “Mega Fries” from Chincoteague Diner—fries covered in cheese and bacon with ranch on the side, to celebrate the “mega rarities” we found during the day.
Mega Fries and Virgil’s Rootbeer
The three of us sat outside of the Days Inn after dark, when we heard the familiar call of a Song Sparrow, a bird we were afraid to miss. About an hour later a sweet twee twee twee… twee twee twee call was heard overhead: a migrating Solitary Sandpiper, and our last bird of the day. We celebrated and returned to our hotel room, where we calculated our total: 132 species of bird in a day. After another celebration we quickly fell asleep, exhausted from a day of intense birding.
The Blue Ridge Great Horns slept in until 7:30 am, which felt unimaginably late compared to yesterday, and ate breakfast, leaving the hotel by 8:15.
At Queen Sound Flats, we stopped to see some Short-billed Dowitchers and a flock of Blue-winged Teals, both of which we missed on the Big Day.
We drove all the way back down the peninsula to Kiptopeke SP, where we would hawkwatch for the day. I wasn’t very fond of hawkwatching, but I was hoping to give it a try, since I knew it was quite a different experience from the Rockfish Gap HW.
We arrived and set up our scopes on the platform, meeting everyone at the hawkwatch. I started scanning and spotted some harriers and a Merlin, which was actually a kestrel. I had some learning to do. I was really enjoying the hawkwatching for about two hours, seeing many Peregrine Falcons, and my two largest kettles of Broad-wings.
A small portion of the kettle
Noon approached and the activity dropped. I decided to explore the area, where I found some Blue-faced Meadowhawks.
Throughout the day I got the hang of accipiters, as I have had experience with them at Rockfish. The small falcons took a while to get good at, but by the end of the day I was able to identify most of the close and medium distance birds.
In the evening, the Merlin flights got started and were very entertaining. I looked around the butterfly garden, where I talked with the Monarch bander, who found a Long-tailed Skipper in the bushes at the parking lot. We walked over and sure enough, there it was. I loved watching it move from flower to flower, its iridescent-green back shining in the sunlight.
Long-tailed Skippers are common around the Gulf of Mexico and venture north during warmer months in late summer and early fall.
We departed from Kiptopeke and took the Bay-Bridge Tunnel to Island #1, where we said our goodbyes to the second best birding hotspot in the state, since the island will be closed this fall for five years—a true loss for the Virginia birding community.
We hit the road, making eBird checklists and quizzing each other on birds all the way home.
We won the challenge with a total of 132 species, and raised about $700 dollars for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory. We also got a cool wooden trophy of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper for winning the Youth Competition, as well as a bronze, life-sized trophy of an American Woodcock on a wooden stand with a plaque.
A successful weekend of birding the Eastern Shore!